film Technology Is Terrifying in Steven Soderbergh’s Kimi
Since his return from self-proclaimed retirement five years ago, Steven Soderbergh has been working at a breathtaking pace, directing a stream of robust thrillers and talky dramas. At a time when Hollywood pundits are wringing their hands about the death of mid-budget grown-up movies, Soderbergh has become a leading creator of frugal filmmaking, doing some of the most wide-ranging work of his career. His latest effort, Kimi, is not quite as joyfully entertaining as the heist movie Logan Lucky, nor as queasy as the asylum-set horror Unsane, but it borrows elements from those two vibes.
The script, written by David Koepp, is an updated Rear Window set firmly in our COVID present: A woman, shored up by months of social distancing, is intent on isolating herself from the world completely. Angela Childs (played by Zoë Kravitz) is an agoraphobic audio analyst ensconced in a Seattle loft. She interprets recordings for a tech company that makes an Alexa-esque device called “Kimi.” Like all the other home assistants running people’s lives, Kimi is a squat, nondescript speaker that turns on your lights for you while listening to everything you say; it’s even better at spying than Jimmy Stewart was with his telephoto lens back in 1954.
The plot is spurred into action when Angela, whose job involves sifting through audio files of people giving ambiguous commands to Kimi, hears something more nefarious going on in one of the recordings. The scenario is loosely inspired by a real-life alleged murder that was thought to be overheard by an Alexa device, but Soderbergh and Koepp twist that story in all kinds of conspiratorial directions, spinning a larger web of crime around the attack Angela uncovers. Some of the movie’s most riveting sequences see her trying to piece together confusing background noise, which Soderbergh pairs with blurry, ambiguous visuals, a multisensory rendering of a computer’s cryptic memory.
The only difference between this film and a classic paranoid thriller like The Conversation is that now everyone is perfectly aware that they’re being listened to at all times. That passive sense of dread fuels Kimi—the walls are closing in on Angela even when she’s just browsing the internet in her home. Soderbergh gives the Kimi device its own creepy close-ups, as its lights turn on calmly whenever its name is spoken. It’s always there, but usually unnoticed, lurking in the background of virtually every phone conversation Angela has.
Kravitz plays her with appropriate nerviness; the performance is exciting from an actor who hasn’t appeared in a particularly intriguing film role since 2018’s underrated neo-noir Gemini. Despite her circumscribed life, Angela is messy and passionate, flirting with a neighbor in the building across the street and nursing hidden wounds from her past. Given that the film’s main tension revolves around an unfeeling (but unfailingly polite) machine, buffering the plot with these character details early on helps personalize the drama.
Kimi does have some fun supporting turns, including Jane the Virgin’s Jaime Camil as a foreboding villain and Rita Wilson as Angela’s unhelpful boss, but almost all of the screen time belongs to Kravitz, who communicates the character’s growing, itchy techno-paranoia well. Koepp’s script builds up to a ludicrous climax, but Kravitz’s convincingly disturbed performance keeps the film on the right side of realism.
Movies are just starting to engage with the ongoing presence of COVID in our lives. Soderbergh, in recent years, has been one of the most daring filmmakers to face contemporary woes head-on: High Flying Bird grappled with social media’s impact on sport and commerce, and The Laundromat dug into the financial shockwaves of the Panama Papers scandal. Kimi is yet another inventive blend of throwback suspense storytelling and current concerns; if Soderbergh wants to keep churning out one of these a year, he’s unlikely to run out of thematically ripe material.
Kimi is screening on HBO Max.
David Sims is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers culture.